Journalism Politics Technology

Horizontal vs. vertical structure: MSN talks Occupy Wall Street and human groups

Just wanted to flag an interesting article on a dreary, damp Saturday evening. MSNBC has an interesting discussion on the Occupy Wall Street protests happening all across the country – and in New York, apparently demonstrating in Times Square at the moment – and how they’re able to get things done in a seemingly leaderless organization.

The question is correctly framed as not a question of leaderless vs. well-organized structures, but as between horizontal, collaborative structures and vertical, hierarchical structures. Then it kind of veers off, in my opinion.

The article comes hearbreakingly close to discussing the collaborative process that happens everywhere in the computing world that I think also bears on the discussion. Open Source software developers will always claim this as our high ground: that we cooperate on something that costs nothing. We like to tell you its because we have a moral imperative to maintain the free flow of information, but really, its mostly because most of us were fucking broke when we started out.

ASP developers, Java developers and professionals of all kinds cooperate online all day long, even if their chosen specialties cost money. Not to mention things like Quora, where you can get all manner of arcane questions answered for free. And where you can also have the pleasure of being complimented for a solution you gave. You can also just shout your question out over Twitter, Google or Facebook and find a ready answer in someone you already know. This free flow of information – from the mundane to the hyper-specific – freely and regularly is changing the way we expect things to come together.

Alas, the article does not ever get into any of that. Instead, it gets pretty pointedly back to the central theme of most journalism on this issue: that if the protesters do not organize better and more centrally, they are doomed to existing solely as angry mobs.

The article in some ways proves its own point about the differences between horizontal and vertical organization. Or rather, it displays some of the same blind spots that many of us seem to have for the benefits of a decentralized model. Instead of digging any deeper, the article just sort of heaves to a tired end on a trope that could have come from any five minute segment of CNN you’ve ever watched.

Vitals – How does a group like Occupy Wall Street get anything done?.


Springtime in Central Park

Barreling out of New York on the Pinellas Parkway at seventy five miles an hour, swooping over hills and between trees in a rented blue Sebring convertible, my blue shades on, blaring Motorhead’s Ace of Spades with my wife at my side, it occurred to me that the dawn of GPS navigation might forever change the landscape around us. An odd thought for the occasion, but the charming little box with the British accent guiding our route home compelled me to these ruminations. In this brave new world of digitally-determined, on-the-fly OSPF navigation, the tried and true routes from point A to point B that your father would have sent you on become less traveled and new, unexpected paths open up. These routes are based not on human preconception but on the cold, hard facts gleaned from digital maps and algorithms aimed at finding the shortest, directest path to your destination.

I wondered at what changes these newly well-traveled avenues might see. I wondered what the locals in the suddenly well-known small towns might think of the every day parade of cars. I pondered how transportation had always shaped economies, how the Internet had for a moment seemed to obviate the need for travel, and how technology was now turning it’s attention to changing our means of transportation on its own. Passing a “scenic overview” road stop on Rt. 17, whose nominally scenic view had recently been replaced by the chain maille glimmer of SUVs in mega-store parking lots, I sensed the shape of a new marketing strategy or three that those cunning Madison Avenue types might soon exploit. Albany-New York corridors sponsored by Viagra, guided tours on your Nokia phone and scenic views of the Catskills brought to you courtesy of Gander Mountain. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

But change is good and change is also bad. Mostly, as the Chinese soothsaying tomb the I Ching tells us, change simply is. Indeed, it is the only inalterable, imperishable thing that is, was and ever will be. And it was just past the threshold of what now simply is – a threshold beyond which lay pain, loss and confusion, but also hope, love and all that ever will be in our life’s journey – that Sarah and I suddenly decided we needed a temporary change of scenery.

So we booked a car, found a hotel and in the early spring Saturday morning hours, cloaked by a foggy sunrise in which all the world smelled of worms and the Earth wriggled with this new year’s renaissance, we made our way towards New York City.